It might sound a little funny that a company who is largely benefiting from English as de facto official language of the Internet, now wants to be on the forefront of fighting the extinction of languages in the World. But Google was also known for their “do no evil” credo and they apparently reminded themselves of it and take social responsibility.
According to an estimate, only about 50% of the languages that exist today will still be spoken by 2100, in other words approximately 3000 languages. The website is designed to
"find and share the most up-to-date and comprehensive information about endangered languages”.
How does the Endangered Languages Project work? The project targets communities, scholars, organizations and individuals. People get different tech tools at hand, e.g. recording of authentic voices speaking an endangered language, access other peoples samples and collaborate on sharing best practices as well as discussing findings. The materials include both (old) text resources such as manuscripts as well as modern evidence in the form of videos. Collaborators also find a “how to” section with guidelines for the knowledge base or simply how to edit a video.
The language data comes from a group of reputable organisations including the University of Hawai’i with its Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) and the Institute for Language Information and Technology (The Linguist List) at Eastern Michigan University. Google invites interested organizations to join the list of members to contribute and participate in the project in order to make it a truly global effort.
This project is obviously still very new and it remains to be seen if it can reach a global audience or whether it’ll mostly remain an effort of researchers who prefer to stay in their ivory tower.
Another challenge is of course transparency. What exactly is the difference between “endangered” and “at risk”? The website currently seems to classify merely by people still speaking the language (and does speaking equal fluency?).
All in all, the Endangered Languages Project a huge and ambitious one. It will largely depend on the people in charge to turn it into something meaningful, something that could have an impact, rather than just some good publicity and enthusiastic articles on blogs and in newspapers. But as language also always involves culture, cultural diversity and richness, I would very much like to see the project succeed.